February 10, 2016

Between the World and Me

When the topic of driving comes up, there is a story I tell, sometimes laughingly, about growing up and buying my first car (an old Honda Civic) when I was sixteen years old. Driving in my neighborhood, I would routinely get stopped by police — at least once a week, if not more, usually at night when all they could see was the silhouette of a young, dark-skinned man behind the wheel — without reason. In most cases, they would see my bespectacled, Indian face and let me go without even asking for my license and registration; no reason for being pulled over was ever given. I was taught to ignore it, to say, thank you, officer,” and then drive away.

My black friends in the same neighborhood tell the same story without laughing, but with fear, and mostly anger. They were pulled over much more often, their activities questioned, their information logged. They would wonder which routine” stop would turn into an arrest or altercation. They were taught, like I was, to ignore it, to say, thank you, officer,” and then drive away. Unlike me, most of them couldn’t just forget.

The second section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me starts with the story of him getting pulled over by cops in PG County, just outside of Washington DC. In a few pages, he tells us of how getting pulled over wasn’t just an inconvenience, but how it made him fear for his life, fear that his body will be taken away by authorities that have been taught, over years of systematic oppression, that his body was theirs to take. It is a fear that I have never felt, and most likely never will. It is a fear that Mr. Coates and Black Americans live with every day; this book is a way for him to help us understand that fear, even if we will never feel it.

Written as an epistolary account of his life to his son, Between the World and Me is more than just a review of race relations, or an account of being black in America. It is a reflection on being human, and on the structures that, systematically through a heritage of oppression, take that humanity away. Coates’ writing is descriptive but never florid, strong but never terse. He is acutely aware of the power of the written word to speak for those who have been silenced, and his prose is packed full of recollections of writing that has had resonance. The stories that Coates tells are not just his own, but of a society built upon the supremacy of people of one type of person over another, a society where the bodies of black people were, and are still, destroyed by a system that forces them to be twice as good” and take half as much.”

Between the World and Me would be impactful — required reading,” as Toni Morrison has claimed — no matter when it was written, but it is especially important now. It is important because we are reminded every day of the viscerality of violence against the bodies of Black Americans, of how those bodies are taken away, and of how that violence is inherently built into the structures that shape our world. Coates’ book is written as a letter to his son, but it is a letter to us all: the world still sees black bodies as things that can be destroyed, and until that is changed, we are a worse world for that.

You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and you can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a domination whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

Last week, Anil Dash shared some thoughts on Black History Month and the role of the Indian-American community in recognizing and amplifying black voices. I still have a lot to learn about the interaction and history of black and desi people in America, but as I continue to learn more, I wanted to share a selection of Anil’s tweets here:

→ Marginalia